Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 29, Philip And The Ethiopian

Philip has been ministering to the people of Samaria by preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Today the Lord has a divine appointment in store for him.

"Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, 'Go south to the road---the desert road---that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.'" (Acts 8:26) One of the Bible commentaries I consulted states, "There was a road from Jerusalem which led via Bethlehem and Hebron and joined the main road to Egypt just south of Gaza. There were two Gazas. Gaza had been destroyed in war in 93 BC and a new Gaza had been built to the south in 57 BC. The first was called Old or Desert Gaza to distinguish it from the other. This road which led by Gaza would be one where the traffic of half the world went by."

Philip doesn't know yet why God sends him out on this road, but he soon spots a man reading the Scriptures in his chariot. "So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means 'queen of the Ethiopians'). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, 'Go to that chariot and stay near it.'" (Acts 8:27-29) This man is an Ethiopian proselyte to Judaism. He has come a long way to worship at Jerusalem and he is so hungry to know the living God that he can't get enough of Him. Even on the way home he's reading a copy of the Isaiah scroll, a scroll that would have cost him a great deal of money. He is actively seeking a personal relationship with the Lord but doesn't yet understand how to have it.

Philip's work for the kingdom of God is fruitful because he is so obedient to God's instructions. He set out for the highway not knowing why the Lord wanted him to go. Now he approaches the Ethiopian on the instructions of God. He doesn't know God's plans for this meeting but he trusts Him. "Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. 'Do you understand what you are reading?' Philip asked." (Acts 8:30) One of the best ways to witness to someone about Christ is to first meet them on common ground, to begin with a foundation of shared interests. Philip hears the Ethiopian reading aloud from the book of Isaiah, a book he himself knows well. Here is something they have in common. Here is a starting point. Philip recognizes the passage of Scripture this man is reading and he knows it is a passage that foretells the suffering of Jesus Christ, as we will see momentarily.

The eunuch leaves off reading and replies to Philip. "'How can I,' he said, 'unless someone explains it to me?' So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him." (Acts 8:31) What a beautiful meeting! What a wonderful opportunity to share the gospel!

"This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading: 'He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearers is silent, so He did not open His mouth. In His humiliation He was deprived of justice. Who can speak of His descendants? For His life was taken from the earth.'" (Acts 8:32-33) This text is from Isaiah 53. No wonder the Lord wants Philip on this road on this day at this time! God sends Philip to meet the Ethiopian at the very moment he's reading prophecy about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

"The eunuch asked Philip, 'Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?' Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus." (Acts 8:34-35) Philip meets this man where he is in the Scriptures. He doesn't go all the way back to the beginning to start preaching at Abraham in the way Peter and Stephen preached to the Jews. This man is not of the bloodline of Abraham. Philip also doesn't go all the way back through the history of the Jews and explain how God has always been at work sending them deliverers and prophets. The Ethiopian won't benefit from such a lecture in this moment as one born into Judaism might benefit from it. Philip starts witnessing to this man about Christ right where he is, in Isaiah, and shows him that the prophet was speaking of the crucifixion of Jesus.

Everyone needs a comprehensive knowledge of the Scriptures, but the main thing they need to know is "Jesus Christ and Him crucified". (1 Corinthians 2:2) This is the first point we need to get across. Then, after coming to faith in Christ, the new believer should begin building a firm foundation in the Scriptures. I would recommend them starting with the gospels and going all the way through the New Testament before starting the Old Testament. The first thing to do is to learn as much about the person of Jesus Christ as possible. I tried it the opposite way and began at Genesis and ended up feeling bogged down and discouraged later on when I got into the genealogies and the many and various laws. I'm a Gentile and found difficulty in understanding how the laws and the prophets pointed toward the Savior and man's need for Him. First I needed to learn more about the One who was crucified for me; then I was able to go back into the Old Testament and clearly see that everything in those Scriptures was leading up to the advent of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The eunuch believes when he hears about Jesus Christ and Him crucified. "As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, 'Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?' And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the Eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him." (Acts 8:36-38) This is yet another example in the book of Acts of people believing first and then being baptized. The true baptism takes place in the heart when a person accepts Jesus Christ as Lord. Baptism with water is a symbol of what has already happened in the heart.

"When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea." (Acts 8:39-40) Some scholars believe Luke means Philip disappeared and was supernaturally transported by the Lord to Azotus, while others believe Luke simply means Philip was immediately told to go and minister in Azotus. I agree with the first explanation because Luke uses the Greek word "harpazo" which means "to seize, catch up, snatch away". This is the same word the Apostle Paul will use in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 when he describes what has come to be known as the rapture of the church, when we will be caught up to meet Christ in the air. The word "rapture" originates from the Latin "rapio" which means the same thing as the Greek "harpazo": to "seize or carry off". So I personally believe Philip disappears as he comes up out of the water and that he really is supernaturally transported to Azotus. This serves as a sign to the Ethiopian that the gospel he has just placed his faith in is real. Should he ever harbor any doubts in later years in his own country about the message he heard, he will always be able to remember the display of the power of God, and he will know that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the truest truth there is.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 28, Simon The Sorcerer

We are still in the region of Samaria in today's passage. Philip has brought the gospel to these people and many of them have received it gladly. We are about to meet a fellow named Simon who, before the gospel came, successfully deceived a large number of the residents of Samaria into thinking he was a Messiah-type figure or some sort of a god.

"Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, 'This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.' They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery." (Acts 8:9-11) Luke says Simon was a magos, a magician. Philip has been performing great signs and wonders among the people through the power of God, but Simon has been performing his magic feats through the powers of the occult. We should not be surprised that signs and wonders can be produced through the powers of the occult, for because Pharaoh of Egypt had similar magicians in his court during the days of Moses, and we find them successfully reproducing some of the miracles of Moses in Exodus 7 and 8.

"But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw." (Acts 8:12-13) Some scholars suggest Simon's conversion wasn't real. We can't say for certain, but Luke uses the Greek "pisteuo" which has been translated into the English word "believed". The Greek dictionary tells us this word means "to think to be true, to be persuaded of, to credit, to place confidence in the thing believed". Pisteuo is the same word used in other places in the New Testament when speaking of the true conversion of those who hear the gospel of Christ. I'm not sure that Simon's problem is that he doesn't believe. Simon's problem, as we shall see, is that he desires the ability to perform signs and wonders more than he desires a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

"When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there and that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit." (Acts 8:14-17) A number of commentators suggest that the falling of the Holy Spirit that Luke speaks of represents outward manifestations such as the apostles experienced at Pentecost. Whatever Luke means, there must have been some type of visible evidence of the change in these people, for when Simon witnesses it he covets the ability to lay his own hands on people and convey spiritual gifts upon them

"When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money and said, 'Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.'" (Acts 8:18-19) Simon longs for prestige and authority. In joining the Christian movement he lost the large following of people who formerly believed he was "the Great Power of God". (v 10) He thinks he can gain back his admirers if he can purchase the ability to convey spiritual gifts by the laying on of his hands. People will seek him out and, perhaps as they did in the past, pay him for his services or offer him desirable advantages in the community. This man is unwilling to submit his authority to Christ and to obediently perform whatever office Christ wants him to perform in the church. He wants to be somebody in his own right. He does not have the humble attitude of the sons of Korah who wrote, "I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked". (Psalm 84:10b) Holding a humble office in the church doesn't appeal to Simon.

This brings us to an interesting bit of trivia. The word "simony" comes from Simon's actions in verses 18 and 19 and it means "the attempt to buy or sell an office of the church, the sacrilege of buying or selling that which is spiritual in return for something that is temporal". Simon's request was considered so reprehensible by the early church that a new word was invented to describe what he attempted to do. But again this doesn't necessarily prove he didn't really believe in Jesus Christ. Over the centuries there have no doubt been a number of true believers who attempted to purchase for themselves higher positions in the church. It's the nature of fallen human beings to covet worldly glory and from time to time we have all probably wanted to glorify ourselves more than we have wanted to glorify the name of Jesus.

"Peter answered: 'May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that He may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.'" (Acts 8:20-23) Simon has been following Philip everywhere, but until he repents of his desire for glory for himself he cannot minister to the people. He is not in the right frame of mind to be able to help others. We have to be very careful about the character of those who are in leadership positions in the church. Their mode of living needs to be as above reproach as possible. If a sin has taken them captive, there is the danger that they will lead others into the same sin. A person or persons also in authority in the church, who loves and cares for the one who has fallen into sin, needs to go to them and say the same thing Peter said to Simon, "Repent and pray."

"Then Simon answered, 'Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.'" (Acts 8:24) Simon doesn't go to the Lord in prayer to ask forgiveness for his sin. He asks Peter to intercede for him. Does this mean he didn't repent? No one really knows. We never hear anything about Simon the Sorcerer again. Some early church traditions say he repented and continued to work among the Christian community in Samaria. Other traditions insist he is the founder, or at least a leader, of the heretic Christian Gnostic movement. Gnosticism (from the Greek word "gnosis" which means "to know") taught that salvation was earned by achieving higher and higher levels of spiritual knowledge. This is salvation by works and not by faith, which directly contradicts everything Jesus Christ ever said about salvation. The Christian Gnostics also put forth many erroneous teachings about Jesus Christ and about His nature, all these teachings being the exact opposite of everything Jesus said about Himself. If you have time you should look up Christian Gnosticism and you will quickly see why it was a dangerous and false doctrine.

Did Simon repent and allow himself to be used by the Lord? Or did he continue on in error? The Bible doesn't tell us, but the thing we can take away from today's study is that if we want to be effective in getting the gospel message out and if we want to be able to minister to others, we need to daily examine our hearts to see whether we need to repent of anything. We especially need to examine our hearts for pride to see whether the glory of the name of Jesus Christ means more to us than the glory we want for ourselves. We've all fallen into pride sometime or other. We probably will again. The thing to do when we recognize that is to "repent and pray".

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 27, Philip Takes The Gospel To Samaria

The believers are being scattered by persecution. In today's passage we find Philip preaching the gospel in Samaria, the city which was once the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel when the nation split during the days of King Solomon's son Rehoboam.

The Jews and the Samaritans were not friends. The Samaritans had intermarried with foreigners, bringing pagan customs into their religion, and they built their own temple on Mount Gerizim rather than worshiping at Jerusalem as instructed by God. They accepted the five books written by Moses but rejected the prophetic writings, while believers in Judea accepted both the law and the prophets. In addition, there was enmity between the Samaritans and the Jews because the Samaritans had vigorously opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem's walls in the time of Nehemiah when the captives of the southern kingdom were set free from Babylon. On top of all this, Samaria was a sanctuary city for those who had committed crimes in Judea and for those who had broken Jewish laws to the point of being excommunicated from the temple. It was considered a city of lawlessness and uncleanness. In general, the Jews looked down on the Samaritans more than they looked down on the Gentiles. Gentiles could be excused up to a point for their ignorance of God's laws but the Samaritans had no such excuse. A Jew in Philip's day would have gone out of his way to avoid passing through Samaria but, following Jesus' example in John 4:1-42, Philip willingly goes to the Samaritans with the good news of Jesus Christ.

"Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city." (Acts 8:4-8) Some scholars believe this is the Apostle Philip who had previously been a disciple of John the Baptist whom Jesus called to be His own disciple. A greater number of scholars believe he is the Philip who is one of the seven trustworthy men chosen to oversee the distribution to the needy widows, the group that once included the now-martyred Stephen. I agree firmly with the second opinion. Luke has already told us that the apostles did not leave Jerusalem when persecution broke out. If this were the Apostle Philip, Luke would be contradicting himself. This is the Philip commonly known as Philip the Evangelist, not the Apostle Philip. Philip's good friend and fellow worker Stephen has been put to death, so naturally it seems like a good time to get out of Jerusalem, but it also seems like an opportunity to tell the gospel to people he feels desperately need to hear it.

Samaria is the city where Jesus spoke with the woman at the well, the city where many became believers according to the Apostle John, "Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in Him because of the woman's testimony, 'He told me everything I ever did.' So when the Samaritans came to Him, they urged Him to stay with them, and He stayed two days. And because of His words many more became believers. They said to the woman, 'We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.'" (John 4:39-42) The woman's testimony itself convinced a number of people, but they also believed because of what they heard with their ears and because of what they saw with their eyes. I would be willing to bet they haven't stopped talking about Jesus since His visit, so Samaria is fertile ground to receive the seed of the gospel. Yesterday we talked about the Greek word "diaspora" (meaning "to scatter seed") which Luke used when he said the believers were "scattered" because of the persecution in Jerusalem. Philip goes to Samaria to scatter seed on ground that is more than ready to receive it.

Philip's preaching is accompanied by miracles as proof that the gospel is true. He performs the same type of miracles that Jesus performed. Even the evil spirits obey him when he commands them to depart in the name of Jesus. These signs are necessary to prove the truth of the message Philip is preaching, as the Apostle Paul will later say, "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power." (1 Corinthians 4:20) The gospel message is not mere words. Christianity is not simply one more religion of the world. It is the power of God. It has the power to change lives. It has the power to save souls.

God still does miracles today in the name of Christ. Consider the marriages He's put back together. Consider the prodigal children who have returned home. Consider the lives that have been completely transformed. Consider the broken hearts that have been mended, the hopelessness that has been turned into joy, the heavy burden of guilt that has been lifted, the addictions that have been laid down, the chains of repetitive sins that have been broken. The kingdom of God is power! Our song link below speaks of the only One who is able to be everything we need Him to be.
Chain Breaker

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 26, Persecution Breaks Out Against The Church

Stephen has been stoned to death for proclaiming the deity of Jesus. The fact that the Sanhedrin has gotten away with executing him gives them, and other enemies of the church, greater boldness to bring persecution against the Christians.

"On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Jerusalem and Samaria." (Acts 8:1b) The word translated "persecution" is the Greek "diogmos" which means "to hunt down, to pursue, to chase". It is a word that would be most often used to describe the hunting of game, so Luke is telling us not only that the enemies of the church hunted the Christians down like animals, but that they enjoyed it in the same way an avid hunter would enjoy tracking and killing wild game.

It's natural that the apostles and the new believers would have gathered as one large group in Jerusalem, the center of worship. The church first became the church at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. Jesus Himself predicted that the gospel message would begin to be taught at Jerusalem, but He never instructed the church to stay there from then on. Instead He told them, "You will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8b) I'm not saying the church was operating outside the Lord's will by remaining at Jerusalem, but I think that until persecution came they might have been getting a little too comfortable there. In our own times we are in danger of getting too comfortable inside the walls of our churches. It is Biblical for us to gather together as the church for the purpose of prayer, study, fellowship, and encouragement. But it's also Biblical for us to go out into the world and be the church, to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a hurting world, and to bring the message of hope to our fellow man.

The apostles themselves do not flee in fear of their lives, but the other believers head out with their families for safer regions. It is imperative for the apostles to stand strong in the face of opposition, no matter the threat to their lives, in order to encourage the other believers to share the gospel wherever they go. No doubt Satan thought the persecution of the church would soon lead to its being disbanded, but it had the opposite effect: it spread the gospel. When Luke says the believers were "scattered" he uses the Greek "diaspora", with the most basic meaning of this term being "to scatter seed". It calls to mind the image of a farmer walking down the rows of his field swinging his arm widely in an arc to cast handfuls of seed into the rich earth where it will soon spring up. Satan thought he could destroy the church down to its very roots by bringing persecution against it, but the persecution only scattered the seed of the gospel, causing it to come up and flourish in more and more places outside of Jerusalem.

"Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him." (Acts 8:2) Stephen wasn't a perfect man but he was a very godly and faithful man. His death was a huge loss for all who knew and loved him. In life he did great things for the kingdom of Christ and in his death he also did great things for the kingdom of Christ, because it was his death that first prompted the gospel to move outside the walls of Jerusalem and eventually into the rest of the world. The enemies of the church likely felt Stephen had given his life in vain for a false religion, but there was nothing the least bit useless about the sacrifice of his life for the sake of the gospel. God used what happened on that sad day in a mighty way to cause the church to grow and prosper.

As we close today we get another glimpse into the character of Saul of Tarsus, "But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison." (Acts 8:3) A more literal rendering of what Luke tells us is that Saul laid waste to the church, or that he ravaged it, or that he brutalized it, or that he devastated it. Following his conversion, when the man now known as the Apostle Paul testifies before King Agrippa, he says of his previous behavior, "I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord's people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities." (Acts 26:9-11)

Paul says of his former life, "It wasn't enough for me to persecute the Christians at Jerusalem. I hated them so much I wanted to hunt them down to the ends of the earth. I wanted to wipe the name and the memory of Jesus of Nazareth from history. I have the blood of the Lord's people on my hands, a stain nothing could ever wash away except the blood of the very One whose church I formerly persecuted. I don't deserve to be called an apostle because of all the ways I sinned against the Lord Jesus Christ. But He extended grace and forgiveness to me anyway, and He offered me a chance to become someone new, and it's by His grace that I am a minister of the gospel. Because He has shown such marvelous grace to me, I intend to declare His gospel wherever I go. I will not waste the opportunity He's given me." (paraphrased from 1 Corinthians 15:9-10)

The man who once had the blood of the Christians on his hands will become a Christian himself when he recognizes his sins and realizes nothing can wash them away but the blood of Christ.

Those of you who have been following this blog for a long time will recognize the song I'm posting the link to below. It's one of my favorite songs about the blood of Jesus and I've posted this link several times before in previous studies. I hope it is as much of a blessing to you as it is to me.
This Blood

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 25, Stephen Stoned To Death/Saul Of Tarsus Gives His Approval

In yesterday's study we found Stephen confronting the Sanhedrin for their stubborn refusal to believe the truth. He said they were just like their ancestors who often rebelled against God's chosen deliverers and who refused to acknowledge their sins. The Sanhedrin isn't going to stand for words such as these.

"When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him." (Acts 7:54) Some translations render the verse like this, "They were cut to the heart". We have already seen one instance of a sermon cutting people to the heart, and that was Peter's sermon at Pentecost. But Peter's listeners responded to the conviction of the Holy Spirit by coming to faith in Christ. The Sanhedrin respond to the conviction of the Holy Spirit by repressing their guilt and unleashing their anger on Stephen.

Stephen is not a man who resists the Holy Spirit. It is at this moment that the Holy Spirit gives him the courage to face death without fear. "But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God." (Acts 7:55) I can't imagine being martyred for my faith. If it should come to that, I can only trust that the Holy Spirit will give me the same strength He has given others. We are privileged enough to be given a description of just how the Holy Spirit strengthened Stephen in his final moments on earth. This first Christian martyr's mind was on the glory of heaven and his eyes were fixed on Jesus Christ. Though God allowed him to meet his death, He gave him the grace to stand up under the pressure, and I think Stephen was so transported by the vision provided to him that it's possible he didn't even feel the stones that are soon to pelt him.

It's significant that Stephen sees Jesus standing, for the usual description of Jesus since the resurrection is that He is seated at the right hand of God. But on this occasion He rises to His feet to honor Stephen's unshakable faith. He readies Himself to welcome Stephen home with open arms. Does Christ stand to recognize the death of every martyr? Quite possibly so. I can easily imagine Jesus, who gave His life for us, standing to salute those who give their lives for Him.

Stephen can't keep the glorious vision to himself. "'Look,' he said, 'I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.'" (Acts 7:56) To the minds of the Sanhedrin, this is the ultimate blasphemy, to suggest that a man who was executed on a cross is now at the right hand of Almighty God. Stephen uses the Messianic title "Son of Man" in regard to Jesus of Nazareth, a term used by the prophet Daniel and by Jesus Himself. His listeners cannot stand to hear anymore. These highly educated men are overcome with fury and form a crazed mob.

"At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul." (Acts 7:57-58) The witnesses that testified against a person in court were given the dubious honor of being the first to cast stones. Luke has already told us that the witnesses who testified against Stephen were paid or otherwise induced to tell lies. These are the ones who throw their coats off and lay them at the feet of Saul of Tarsus, a man who in this moment is in complete agreement with the actions of the mob. A day is coming in which this man will say, "Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief." (1 Timothy 1:13)

Saul, who will become the Apostle Paul, was once a blasphemer because he spoke against Christ. He was a persecutor because of incidents like the one we are studying today and because he himself sought out Christians in order to have them arrested, beaten, and even executed. This is why he refers to himself as having been a violent person, because he reveled in punishing the Christians for what he felt was idolatry. But Paul also gives credit to the mercy of God because God gave him a second chance. God gave him an opportunity to become someone different and better. God understood that when Saul of Tarsus was persecuting Christians he was doing it because he didn't know Christ. Once he came to know Christ, Paul himself was more than willing to die a martyr's death for the name of Jesus. I can't help wondering if Paul thought of Stephen many years later as he met his own death for the faith. Perhaps in his final moments Paul found strength in thinking of the example of Stephen whose mind was set on things above, not on things below.

"While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.' Then he fell on his knees and cried out, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.' When he had said this, he fell asleep." (Acts 7:59-60) Jesus is the example Stephen thinks of as he breathes his last. Like Jesus, he asks for the Lord to receive his spirit. Like Jesus, he prays for his enemies and asks God not to hold their sins against them.

Luke concludes today's passage on this note, "And Saul approved of their killing them." (Acts 8:1) I think there is a dramatic flair to Luke's writing, for he has introduced Saul to us in a way that indicates to us that this man will continue to grow more and more violent as an enemy of the church. Luke sets the stage to surprise us later when Saul's stunning conversion takes place. Luke prepares us to give God praise when we see the grace of the Lord at work as He transforms the violent Saul into one of the greatest preachers of the gospel who has ever lived.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 24, Stephen Concludes His Defense

In our study yesterday Stephen was using Moses as an example of a man God chose to deliver Israel despite Israel having no desire for Moses to lead them. Today he continues, "This is the same Moses they had rejected with the words, 'Who made you ruler and judge?' He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God Himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. He led them out of Egypt and performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness." (Acts 7:35-36)

At various times the people of Israel rebelled against Moses and did not want him to lead them, but by Stephen's day Moses was highly respected---so highly respected that part of the false charges brought against Stephen involved him speaking against Moses. Since the Sanhedrin hold Moses in such high esteem, Stephen reminds them that Moses foretold the Christ. If they believe in taking the words of Moses to heart, why then did they not recognize Jesus as the Christ? "This is the Moses who told the Israelites, 'God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.' He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us." (Acts 7:37-38)

"But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. They told Aaron, 'Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt---we don't know what has happened to him!' That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and reveled in what their own hands had made. But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets: 'Did you bring Me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel? You have taken up the tabernacle of Molek and the star of your god Rephan, the idols you made to worship. Therefore I will send you into exile' beyond Babylon." (Acts 7:39-43) When the people rebelled against Moses and the law, they were rebelling against God. Stephen is making the point that in rebelling against Jesus Christ they are rebelling against God.

Stephen goes on, "Our ancestors had the tabernacle of covenant law with them in the wilderness. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, who enjoyed God's favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for Him." (Acts 7:44-47) The people have had the presence of God with them always, but that has not stopped them from being unfaithful to Him.

Stephen's enemies have falsely accused him of speaking against the temple. He wants them to understand that they are still observing a form of idolatry. They have elevated the temple to the level of God, so much so that to speak against the temple is considered blasphemy. He reminds them that God is bigger than the temple, bigger than the world, bigger than the universe, bigger than anything or anyone they can imagine. "However the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says: 'Heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool. What kind of house will you build for Me?' says the Lord. 'Or where will My resting place be? Has not My hand made all these things?'" (Acts 7:48-50) The prophet mentioned here is Isaiah and the quote is from Isaiah 66. In Isaiah's day the people thought God would spare Jerusalem from invasion by Babylon because the temple was there. Time and again they refused to listen to prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah who urged them to repent. Because the people refused to turn from idolatry, God allowed the nation to be invaded and the temple to be destroyed. Such a thing will happen again if Stephen's listeners don't take heed and repent.

Now, like a prophet of old, Stephen confronts the Sanhedrin with their wrongdoing, "You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered Him---you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it." (Acts 7:51-53) These words, like the words of the prophets, will seal Stephen's doom. The Sanhedrin will put him to death just as their ancestors put the prophets to death. In tomorrow's passage this brave and faithful young man will give his life for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 23, Stephen's Defense, Part Three

Stephen is still speaking in court before the Sanhedrin. He continues speaking of Moses whom God chose to deliver the people from Egypt, "When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites. He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. The next day Moses came upon two Israelites who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them by saying, 'Men, you are brothers; why do you want to hurt each other?' But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, 'Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?' When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons." (Acts 7:23-29)

Moses knew God was calling him to rescue the Israelites, but the Israelites didn't rally behind him when he defended one of them against an Egyptian. The Israelites considered Moses an Egyptian, no matter who he was by blood, and he thought they would understand that in killing the wicked Egyptian he was choosing to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. (Hebrews 11:25) But Moses' people did not recognize him as God's chosen man for that particular time in history. Stephen is making a comparison between Moses and Jesus, another man who wasn't recognized as a deliverer by His own people in His own time in history. Just as the people asked Moses, "Who made you ruler and judge over us?", the religious leaders asked Jesus, "By what authority are You doing this? Who gave You authority to do this?" (Mark 11:28) Jesus knew what was in their hearts and told a parable in which He was represented as the king the people rejected, "We don't want this man to be our king." (Luke 19:14)

Moses fled Egypt in fear for his life because no one among the Egyptians or among the Israelites was going to stand up for him. The killing of the Egyptian was likely necessary in order to keep the Egyptian from killing the Israelite; I don't think Moses committed such an act simply to make a statement but because a person's life was in serious danger. But his actions wouldn't be looked upon favorably by the Egyptians, plus the people Moses sought to deliver didn't want him to deliver them. So he made a new life for himself in the wilderness, marrying and having two sons, expecting to spend the remainder of his days shepherding the sheep of his father-in-law. But God still intended him to shepherd His people Israel. God is sovereign and He will always choose the person He wants for the job. Such things are not up to man. The religious leaders of Israel may have rejected Jesus, and they may have exclaimed, 'We don't want this man to be king over us!', but God has made Jesus the King of kings. Jesus will rule over the world, over all nations and tongues, because He is God's choice.

In the same way, though Moses' people had already rejected him, he was God's chosen man for the job. As preparation for the monumental task ahead, God trained Moses by allowing him to shepherd sheep in the wilderness for forty years. You may recall that David, after he was anointed as the future king by the prophet Samuel, spent about the next fifteen years first shepherding his father's sheep, then leading King Saul's soldiers, then leading his own band of soldiers while on the run from the murderous Saul. A fair amount of time passed by between realizing his calling in life and actually being crowned king. Sometimes God reveals our calling in life long before it's time to take action, so it's always best to wait for His timing. Moses got ahead of God and he needed to spend the next forty years in the wilderness. He needed that humbling experience. He needed the many hours alone in the wilderness with just the animals and God. He needed to learn how to lead a large herd of sheep before he could understand how to lead a large group of people.

"After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to get a closer look, he heard the Lord say: 'I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.' Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look." (Acts 7:30-32) In Moses' mind he had been cast aside as the deliverer of Israel. He may have come to believe he had misunderstood God's calling on his life or he may have just thought he'd blown his only chance. But the time had come to fulfill his destiny and God reminded him who he was. He wasn't an Egyptian destined to live as a prince in a pagan land. He wasn't a shepherd destined to live out his days in the backside of the desert. He was a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God had made a promise to Abraham about delivering the people from a foreign land. God intended to use Moses to bring them out.

"Then the Lord said to him, 'Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I have indeed seen the oppression of My people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.'" (Acts 7:33-34) God says, "I'm not finished with you, Moses. You didn't misunderstand My intentions to use you to deliver My people Israel. You just misunderstood My timing. Now remember who you are! You are not the son of Pharaoh's daughter but the son of an Israelite and a descendant of Abraham. You are not meant to spend your life hiding out in the wilderness. You are going back to Egypt and I'm going with you. Now is the time to deliver Israel from her oppressors. Never mind the fact that the Israelites have already rejected you. It doesn't matter who has said of you, 'We don't want this man to be a leader over us!' I have chosen you to lead My people out of bondage. You are My choice and I will enable you to do what I've called you to do."

In relating this account of Moses' life Stephen is telling the Sanhedrin that Jesus is God's chosen king. Jesus is the man God has appointed to be the heir of all things. It doesn't matter that Jesus was rejected by the people; what matters is that He is God's choice. The people can cry out, "We won't have this man to be king over us!", or, "We have no king but Caesar!", but nothing is going to change the fact that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God, the Messiah, the King of kings, the Lord, and the Savior of the world.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 22, Stephen's Defense, Part Two

Stephen has been called before the Sanhedrin on false charges of blasphemy and of speaking against the law of Moses and against the word of God. Stephen stands before these men who had Jesus put to death and gives the only defense he has: the gospel of Jesus Christ. It isn't blasphemy to call Jesus "Lord" if He is Lord. It isn't disrespecting the law to say Jesus fulfills the law if He does indeed fulfill the law. It isn't a false religion to claim salvation can be found in Jesus if He really is the only way to the Father.

Stephen continues today with a history of Israel and of God's guiding hand on her. "As the time drew near for God to fulfill His promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt had greatly increased. Then 'a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.' He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our ancestors by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die." (Acts 7:17-18) Stephen quotes from the first chapter of Exodus. The Pharaoh of Exodus 1 was prejudiced against the foreigners in Egypt and was gripped with paranoia regarding their presence in his country, so he said to his people, "The Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country." (Exodus 1:9-10)

Under this wicked Pharaoh the Israelites were forced into hard labor and they knew the bitter life of slavery. But God sent someone to deliver them from slavery in Egypt, just as God sent Jesus Christ to save the world from the slavery of sin. In yesterday's study we found Stephen using Joseph as an example of a type of Christ; today he uses Moses as a type of Christ. Joseph was a man rejected by his brothers, just like Jesus. Moses was a man often rejected and murmured against, just like Jesus. The point Stephen is making is that the deliverers God has sent haven't always looked the way the people expected them to look, and haven't always been who the people would have chosen to lead them, and haven't always been accepted. Why should Jesus be any different? The Messiah didn't look the way they expected Him to look: they were looking for a tall and handsome man like King Saul or a fierce warrior like King David or a man of power and wealth like King Solomon. The Messiah wasn't the type of person they would have chosen to lead them: He was a poor carpenter from the backwoods town of Nazareth. They wanted a Messiah who would reestablish Israel as a sovereign nation and Jesus had no interest in saving His people from Roman oppression but was instead concerned with saving them from their sins. He wasn't saying the things they wanted Him to say or doing the things they wanted Him to do, so they rejected Him.

"At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for by his family. When he was placed outside, Pharaoh's daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action." (Acts 7:20-22) In yesterday's study we found Stephen speaking of the patriarch Joseph as a deliverer. He was mistreated in his early life, but his mistreatment led to him being in a position to save the lives of his people. Moses too was mistreated in his early life. Pharaoh had commanded that all the baby boys of the Israelites be put to death, but Moses' family hid him as long as they could before putting him in a basket in the river hoping someone would have mercy on him. Pharaoh's very own daughter found him and raised him as her own as a prince of Egypt. This would allow him to have no trouble being granted audiences with the later Pharaoh who will refuse to let his people go. God orchestrated the events of Moses' life so he would be in a position to save the lives of his people.

God orchestrated the events of the life of Jesus of Nazareth so He would be in a position to save men and women from their sins. The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah so that there should be no doubt in anyone's mind that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. Stephen wants his listeners to understand this and to come to faith in Christ. He's spending what is going to be the final hour of his life preaching the gospel of salvation to men who don't want to hear it and who won't accept it, but he does it anyway. He's not pleading for his own life; he's pleading for these men's souls. What an awesome example this is to us! We should never stop sharing the gospel, even when it seems like no one is listening and no one cares. Stephen felt that the gospel message was so important that he used the last moments of his time on earth to share it with others. That is how vital the truth of the gospel is. That is how much the world needs to hear it. Let's take the example of Stephen to heart and keep on telling the world about Jesus.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 21, Stephen's Defense, Part One

Stephen has been dragged before the Sanhedrin on charges of blasphemy against the laws of Moses and against God and of making threats against the temple. False witnesses have been bribed to tell lies about what Stephen has been teaching and doing. After listening to these accusations, the high priest invites Stephen to speak up for himself, "Then the high priest asked Stephen, 'Are these charges true?'" (Acts 7:1)

Stephen treats his religious persecution as an opportunity to preach the gospel to these men. Beginning all the way back at Abraham, he will demonstrate that the things happening now are the fulfillment of the Scriptures. "To this he replied: 'Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran. 'Leave your country and your people,' God said, 'and go to the land I will show you.'" (Acts 7:2-3) Stephen's defense is clearly going to show that he understands and upholds the Scriptures. He has never spoken against the law or the prophets; he simply wants to show the world that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets.

He uses Abraham as an example of someone who was determined to go wherever God led him, even when he wasn't sure where he was going. Stephen too is determined to go wherever God leads him. So far God has led him to believe that Jesus of Nazareth, now risen from the dead, is Messiah and Lord and King of all kings. Stephen doesn't know where this path is going to lead him, but he intends to keep putting one foot in front of the other even if the path leads to death. Abraham also kept putting one foot in front of the other, trusting in the promises of a God who never lies. "So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Harran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. He gave him no inheritance there, not even enough ground to set his foot on. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though Abraham had no child." (Acts 7:4-5) Abraham believed God was going to give him descendants even though he and his wife Sarah were too old to have children without the miraculous help of the Lord. Abraham believed God was going to cause those descendants to inherit the land in which Stephen and the Sanhedrin are now living in today's passage. Both those promises came true, as Stephen's listeners well know.

"God spoke to him in this way: 'For four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,' God said, 'and afterward they will come out of that country and worship Me in this place.' Then He gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs." (Acts 7:6-8) These things also happened just as God said they would. It wasn't until after He rescued the Israelites from Egypt that He gave them the Promised Land. But it was before any of these things took place that God gave Abraham a sign of His covenant with him and with his descendants. Abraham obeyed the Lord on faith, knowing he would not in his own lifetime see the fulfillment of any of these promises except the gift of a son. If only the men of the Sanhedrin had faith like Abraham! If they did, they would recognize Jesus for who He is and would be worshiping Him just like Stephen.

"Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt. So Pharaoh made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace." (Acts 7:9-10) Just like Jesus, Joseph was rejected by his own people. Just like Jesus, Joseph was betrayed in exchange for money. Just like Jesus, Joseph was despised because others were envious of him. The brothers of Joseph thought they were well rid of him, but in a stunning turnabout he is going to become the only man who can save them. The religious leaders of Stephen's day thought they were well rid of Jesus, the only Man capable of saving them.

"Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our ancestors could not find food. When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our forefathers on their first visit. On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph's family. After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our ancestors died. Their bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain sum of money." (Acts 7:11-16) Stephen wants his accusers to understand that the bad things that happen in this world are not always a result of a person's sin. Joseph wasn't sold into slavery because he was a wicked person but because he was the person God chose to save His people Israel from death by famine. The same is true of Jesus of Nazareth. He wasn't crucified because He was a wicked person but because He was the person God chose to save His people Israel from their sins, along with all the Gentiles who would believe on Him.

The religious leaders consider Jesus of Nazareth a blasphemer, a fraud, a man worthy of death, and a man upon whom the judgment of God fell. As they testified before Pilate about Him, "If He were not a criminal we would not have handed Him over to you." (John 18:30) They believe Jesus went to His death because their suspicions about Him were true and that God was punishing Him for His wrongdoing. Isaiah predicted their attitude, "We considered Him punished by God, stricken by Him and afflicted." (Isaiah 53:4b) Yet the Sanhedrin can clearly see from the example of Joseph that not all bad things happen because of sin. Joseph was a good man. He is one of the few men in the Bible about whom nothing negative is said because, although he wasn't perfect, his heart was fully devoted to the Lord. If the Sanhedrin want to claim Jesus suffered because He was a sinner, how do they explain the suffering of Joseph who was hated and betrayed by his own brothers and who ended up being falsely accused in Egypt and imprisoned for many years before he rose to a position of prominence?

Stephen wants his listeners to understand that the death of Jesus was a part of God's plan, just as the selling of Joseph into slavery was a part of God's plan. It wasn't for His own sins that Jesus died on the cross, but for the sins of mankind. Jesus was nailed to a cross not because He was a sinner, but because He wasn't, for only a perfect and spotless lamb without blemish could be an acceptable sacrifice for sins. As Isaiah predicted, "It was the Lord's will to crush Him and cause Him to suffer." (Isaiah 53:10a) The suffering of Jesus brought spiritual salvation to the world, just as the suffering of Joseph brought physical salvation to the people of Israel. Jesus could say to the Sanhedrin the same thing Joseph said to his brothers, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives." (Genesis 50:20)

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 20, Stephen Arrested And Falsely Accused

Yesterday Luke introduced us to a man named Stephen by saying he was "full of faith and of the Holy Spirit". Today we find Stephen persecuted for his faith.

"Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people." (Acts 6:8) We find that Stephen too, along with the apostles, is able to do wonders and signs through the power of the Holy Spirit.

"Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)---Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia---who began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke." (Acts 6:9) Bible scholar Adam Clarke observes, "The persons mentioned here were foreign Jews, who appear to have had a synagogue peculiar to themselves at Jerusalem, in which they were accustomed to worship when they came to the public festivals...It is supposed, also, that these synagogues had theological, if not philosophical, schools attached to them; and that it was the disciples or scholars of these schools who came forward to dispute with Stephen, and were enraged because they were confounded." Just as the enemies of Jesus frequently tried to test His knowledge of the Scriptures, we find these foreign Jews doing the same to Stephen.

Who are these Freedmen? Their name comes from the Latin libertini which was a term used by the Romans for freed slaves, or the descendants of freed slaves, to differentiate between this social class and the social class of those who had never been slaves. Most reputable scholars agree that these men are either Hellenized Jews (the meaning of which we discussed yesterday) or foreign converts to Judaism. It is likely they all speak Greek as their only language and this explains why they worship at their own synagogue at Jerusalem rather than at the temple where Aramaic is spoken. This also explains why they choose to argue with Stephen, who almost certainly is a Hellenized Jew himself since he was chosen to help oversee the distribution of goods to the Hellenized Jewish widows. The apostles and Hebraic Jews who are preaching the gospel can't converse with the Freedmen in Greek, but Stephen can.

The mention of men from the province of Cilicia is very important and we don't want to miss the fact that Tarsus, the hometown Saul who will later become the Apostle Paul, was located in Cilicia. Some commentators believe Saul is in the crowd that verbally attacks Stephen. I find it doubtful that Saul attended this synagogue in place of attending services at the temple, but this doesn't mean he couldn't have attended services at the synagogue in addition to worshiping at the temple. He may also have joined classes at the synagogue's school. We know Paul himself was never a slave but it's possible he had an ancestor who was, giving him the right to attend the Synagogue of the Freedmen. He states in Acts 22:28 that he was born free. In Philippians 3:5 he says he has spent his whole life among the Jews at Jerusalem, so if there was ever any slavery in his family it was from a prior generation than his. He may well have known men from Cilicia who visited this synagogue, and he may have socialized with them and attended debates or studies at this synagogue, but in order to move up through the ranks of the Pharisees as quickly as he did, he must also have maintained a regular presence at the temple. Paul wrote and spoke fluent Greek and was at least somewhat Hellenized, as many in Jerusalem were, but in his religious life there is no doubt he strictly observed all the Jewish laws and customs. He could not have been so influenced by the Greek culture that his fellow Pharisees would have considered him worldly and irreverent. Was he in the crowd that argued with Stephen? Possibly so. He always enjoyed a lively debate and he may have gone with some of the men from Cilicia to question Stephen. We don't know, but one thing we do know is that in Chapter 7 he approves when the Sanhedrin declares Stephen guilty of blasphemy. We know he witnesses the death of Stephen and guards the coats of those who stone him.

The men who hotly debate with Stephen are unable to prevail against him so they suborn false testimony. "Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, 'We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.' So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, 'This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.'" (Acts 6:11-14) These are the same type of charges that were brought against Jesus at His trial before the Sanhedrin. These are all bald-faced lies. Jesus Christ never spoke against the law or the prophets but instead He was the fulfillment of everything God ever said through the law and the prophets. Jesus Christ upheld the word of God, and He held it to a far higher standard than any of the Pharisees. Stephen too is upholding the word of God, the very word which foretold the Messiah, the very prophecies which clearly point to Jesus of Nazareth as the only man who could possibly be the Messiah.

"All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel." (Acts 6:15) They see something different about Stephen, just as they saw something different about the apostles when they "took note that these men had been with Jesus". (Acts 4:13) Whether Stephen ever knew Jesus in the flesh or not we don't know. But Stephen accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and he has the same Holy Spirit as the apostles---the same Holy Spirit you and I have. There is a glow to Stephen's face. He knows what he believes and he knows it's the truth. The power of the Holy Spirit upon him ought to have caused his enemies to stop and consider whether he might be telling the truth, but instead they will reject his testimony just as they rejected the testimony of Jesus.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 19, The Apostles Rejoice/A Man Named Stephen

In yesterday's passage we found Gamaliel advising the Sanhedrin to let the apostles go. They do let them go, but they beat them first.

"His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go." (Acts 5:40) Gamaliel said nothing about giving them the thirty-nine stripes, which is probably what is meant by the flogging they receive. But the apostles' enemies hope to intimidate them into going silent. The punishment of thirty-nine stripes is a very severe punishment and the Sanhedrin use it to try and put a halt to the Christian church.

But it has the opposite effect. "The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah." (Acts 5:41-42) These men do something that unbelievers find difficult to fathom: they rejoice that they have been counted worthy of suffering for Christ. They rejoice because the fact that they are being persecuted means they are actually accomplishing something for the Lord. A few years ago I was listening to Dr. Charles Stanley's morning radio program and he said something that has stuck with me, "If Satan isn't bothering you, then you aren't bothering him." If life is going along year after year on a calm and even keel, if no temptations are coming against us, if we are paying no price for following Christ---then perhaps we are not following Christ as closely as we should be. The apostles are bothering Satan, so Satan bothers them. But the Spirit who is in them is greater than the spirit who is in the world. (1 John 4:4)

Next we are going to meet a man named Stephen, a man chosen to help distribute goods to the needy, a man who will soon be martyred for his faith. The early Christian church is carrying on the Jewish tradition of tamhui, which means "tray". In the Jewish tradition two collectors from the synagogue would go out every Friday and collect money and goods for the needy. They would then distribute these goods later that same day. A dispute arises in the church regarding how the distribution is being carried out. "In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food." (Acts 6:1) The Hellenistic Jews are Jews who have assimilated into the Greek culture. (Hellas being the original name of the country we know as Greece.) They are from various places all over what is, in the first century AD, the Roman Empire. They have stopped speaking Aramaic and speak and read and write only in Greek. But we must make no mistake: these Jews are true Jews and when they convert to Christianity they are true Christians.

We don't know whether the Greek widows actually were being treated unfairly or whether the Hellenistic Jews, knowing the Hebraic Jews harbor some prejudice against them, are simply looking for areas in which to find fault. It's true that the Hebraic Jews thought the Hellenistic Jews had become less spiritual and had become more worldly. They felt these Hellenized believers had compromised with the world and had left many of the old traditions behind. Luke's words seem to indicate that there actually was some disparity between the distribution of goods among the two groups, but many scholars believe this was due more to a cultural barrier and language barrier than anything else. Holy as the early church was, it's doubtful the believers would have deliberately treated one needy person any differently than another needy person.

"So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, 'It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.'" (Acts 6:2-4) The apostles say, "There aren't enough hours in the day for us to get the gospel message out as we should and to also oversee this distribution. You must appoint seven trustworthy and godly men to handle the distribution to the Greek widows."

It is believed that all seven of these men are Hellenistic Jews. Their names do not sound like Hebraic names. It would make sense that Hellenistic Jews would be chosen to oversee the distribution to the Hellenistic widows. This way no one can be accused of prejudice. "The proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them." (Acts 6:5-6)

"So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith." (Acts 6:7) Satan sought to divide the early church into two factions because, as Jesus Christ once said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." (Mark 3:25) Satan sought to use the Hellenized Jews and the Hebraic Jews against each other, causing division in the church. His plot failed. Because his plot failed, the church continues to grow, with even a large number of priests converting to Christianity. Threats haven't worked. Imprisonment hasn't worked. Beatings haven't worked. Divisions haven't worked. Next Satan is going to see if death will work. Stephen, a man whom Luke tells us is full of faith and the Holy Spirit, will be martyred for proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 18, The Voice Of Reason: Rabbi Gamaliel

The high priest and many members of the Sanhedrin are so enraged by Peter's words regarding their need to repent that they want to have the apostles put to death. They might have put their murderous impulses into action if not for the wise words of a reasonable and well-respected man.

"But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while." (Acts 5:34) In the Talmud Gamaliel is given both the titles of Nasi and Rabbi. The fact that he is known as a Nasi (prince, captain, leader) means in the Second Temple period that he is a high-ranking member of the Sanhedrin and likely the highest-ranking member when the Sanhedrin convenes to hold a criminal hearing. This tells us that Gamaliel has a right to take charge of the proceedings as we find him doing in our passage today. In addition, his title of Rabbi means he is a doctor of the law, a master of the Torah, a man recognized by the Jewish public for his understanding of the great number of facts contained in the word of God. The Mishnah has great respect for Gamaliel and his adherence to the laws of God and remarks on what a loss to the nation his death represented, "Since Rabbi Gamaliel the elder died there has been no more reverence for the law; and purity and abstinence died out at the same time." These things explain to us why,  when Gamaliel stands up, all eyes are on him. When he orders that the apostles be put outside the room so he can address the Sanhedrin privately, his word is immediately obeyed.

John Lightfoot, a Christian theologian and rabbinical scholar of the 1600s, says of Gamaliel that he is the son of the Simeon of Luke 2 who through the Holy Spirit recognized the baby Jesus as the promised Messiah. Lightfoot gives Simeon the title of Rabbi and states that he was the son of Hillel, the foremost Jewish teacher of first century Judea. Hillel is credited with giving advice similar to that which Jesus gave by saying, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor." Hillel died when Jesus was probably somewhere around the age of ten to thirteen, so He could not have studied under this particular rabbi (there is no proof Jesus ever studied under any rabbi) but we see in Hillel's wise advice a beautiful understanding of the law in regard to how we should relate to our fellow man. If Hillel was indeed the grandfather of Gamaliel, we can see why Gamaliel is such a merciful and moderate man who does not want to perpetrate an injustice on anyone.

We can also understand from his lineage why Gamaliel is a good candidate to hold authority over the criminal court of the Sanhedrin, but as we study his words we get an even better understanding of why this man is a good choice for the position. He is not led by his emotions like those who wish to stone the apostles. He is led by the word of God and by a calm, reasonable, and moderate form of common sense. "Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: 'Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men.'" (Acts 5:35) He says, "Think before you act! Don't act upon your emotions but upon a careful consideration of this situation from every angle."

He now reminds them of other "movements" that have begun and failed in Judea. "Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered." (Acts 5:36-37) William Barclay says of these references to Theudas and Judas the Galilean, "In those days Palestine had a quick succession of fire-brand leaders who set themselves up as deliverers of their country and sometimes even as the Messiah." Gamaliel says to the Sanhedrin, "After Theudas died his followers scattered and the movement ceased. The same thing happened upon the death of Judas the Galilean. Jesus of Nazareth, the leader of these apostles and of this new movement, has been put to death on the cross. Perhaps soon His followers will scatter and the movement will cease."

But Gamaliel raises another possibility: perhaps this new movement is not one that originates with men, but with God. Because this possibility exists they must set the apostles free. "Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God." (Acts 5:38-39)

In tomorrow's study we find the Sanhedrin setting the apostles free, although they don't follow Gamaliel's instructions to the letter, but right now we want to stop a moment to point out that Gamaliel was the teacher of the Apostle Paul when he was still known as Saul of Tarsus. We find Paul attesting to this fact in Acts 22:3. What influence must Gamaliel have had on Paul? We don't see any of Gamaliel's calm and reasonable personality reflected in Saul of Tarsus while he's persecuting the church, but the teaching of Gamaliel gave Paul such a firm foundation in the Scriptures that when he is confronted by the risen Christ on the Damascus road he recognizes Jesus as the fulfillment of every prophecy regarding the Messiah. Gamaliel no doubt taught Paul to consider every situation from every angle, to reason things out, and to think before he acted. While Paul is young and ambitious and rising in the ranks of the Pharisees he neglects to always observe these teachings, but I believe that the tutelage of Gamaliel helps Paul to see the light spiritually when he sees the light literally. I believe the thorough education he received under Gamaliel helps Paul to become the man who will be the greatest teacher of the gospel other than Jesus Christ. Because Paul understands the law from every possible angle, he can explain to the world how the law is fulfilled in Christ. Because Paul knows the law inside out, and how difficult it is to follow, and how it continually reminds man of his shortcomings and failures, he can fully appreciate the liberty that Christ bestows on all who accept Him as Lord.

It is believed Gamaliel died in 52 AD, so he would have lived to hear about Paul's conversion to Christianity. We don't know what he made of Paul's conversion; some early church traditions suggest that Gamaliel himself became a Christian though there is no proof of this. But Gamaliel lived long enough to see Paul become a rabbi himself, a rabbi of the good news of the gospel, and whether or not Gamaliel believed Jesus was the Christ, I can't help thinking this wise teacher must have felt some pride over the success of his former student. Because he taught Paul so well, when Paul became a Christian he was a better Christian for having studied under Rabbi Gamaliel.

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 17, The Apostles Threatened With Death

In yesterday's study we found an angel setting the apostles free from jail, after which the apostles went right back to teaching about Jesus at the temple. When their enemies find out about this they are furious. "At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them." (Acts 5:26) The officers retrieve the apostles from the temple. They peacefully request that the men accompany them for fear that the people, upon seeing the apostles seized or mistreated, will rise to their defense.

"The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 'We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,' he said. 'Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man's blood.'" (Acts 5:27-28) Bible scholar Thomas Scott, who wrote A Commentary On The Whole Bible, says of this passage, "See how those who with presumption will do an evil thing, yet cannot bear to hear of it afterward, or to have it charged upon them. They could cry daringly enough, 'His blood be on us,' but now they take it as a heinous affront to have Christ's blood laid upon them."

The words of the high priest make me think he is painfully aware of his guilt in helping to put an innocent man to death. I don't think he believes he put the Son of God to death, but deep in his heart he knows he committed a great evil against a fellow human being. As Thomas Scott points out, the high priest had no problem saying to Pontius Pilate, "His blood be upon us and upon our children." But now that the deed is done, he wants it forgotten. He wants to forget it himself and he wants everyone else to forget it.

The blood of Christ is going to be on us all one way or another. It will either cleanse our hearts and souls because we have accepted Christ as Savior and Lord, or it will stain our hands with guilt because we have rejected Him as Savior and Lord. We see an example of this as the apostles stand before the high priest and the Sanhedrin. The apostles are washed clean by the blood of Christ while the enemies of Jesus are desperately trying to deny the fact that His blood is on their hands.

"Peter and the other apostles replied: 'We must obey God rather than human beings! The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead---whom you killed by hanging Him on a cross. God exalted Him to His own right hand as Prince and Savior that He might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.'" (Acts 5:29-32) Peter, the man who once denied Jesus three times in the same night, now proclaims, "I won't deny Him ever again! I will never stop preaching in His name! I am a witness to the fact that He has been raised from the dead and nothing can persuade me to stop telling this good news to the world."

"When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death." (Acts 5:33) The enemies of the apostles are overwhelmed with rage. How dare these men suggest they need to repent of anything? How dare they claim Jesus of Nazareth is seated at the right hand of God? These men want to put the apostles to death for confronting them with their guilt and for committing what they consider blasphemy by crediting Jesus with being the Son of Almighty God.

But in tomorrow's study we find a great rabbi among the Pharisees standing up in the apostles' defense, not because he necessarily accepts their message, but because he genuinely wants to obey the will of God. If these men are doing the will of God, then he feels no one should stand against them. His calm and moderate attitude is a sharp contrast to the venomous prejudice many in the Sanhedrin harbor toward the apostles. This is the same rabbi under which the Apostle Paul studied, and tomorrow we get an idea of what a great influence he must have been on Paul, and we can better understand why Paul immediately accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior when he met Him on the Damascus road.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 16, The Apostles Jailed By Their Enemies And Freed By An Angel

The apostles have been doing the good works of healing the sick and preaching the gospel. This stirs up jealousy against them among the religious leaders. Just as Jesus predicted, persecution is beginning to come against His followers, "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated Me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you also." (John 15:18-20a) We who believe on the name of Christ are not true citizens of this earth but are citizens of heaven. (Philippians 3:20) We are foreigners and strangers on the earth. (Hebrews 11:13) As such, we are often treated as unwelcome aliens by those who despise the name of Christ. Because there are those who love the world more than they love the things of God, they consider us strange and even dangerous.

Persecution won't always take the form of death or bodily harm, though in some countries that is still the case. Persecution in free countries is more likely to take the form of being excluded from certain activities and events, or being passed over for promotions, or being ridiculed, or being rejected for friendship, or not being a part of the popular "in" crowd. Satan hopes to use the disapproval of others to make us unfruitful workers for the kingdom of Christ by stirring up prejudice against us. We must stand firm, caring more for the approval of God than for the approval of man.

As thousands come to the apostles for help and healing, Luke tells us, "Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy." (Acts 5:17) The apostles Peter and John have already been warned to stop preaching in the name of Jesus and now the high priest finds them disobeying his orders. Furthermore, the Sadducees don't believe in a resurrection, so the gospel of a risen Christ is an abomination to them. It's even more of an abomination to them that people are flocking to the apostles in droves to hear the gospel instead of coming to them---the religious elite---for instruction.. The Christian movement is becoming so popular that the religious leaders see their authority over the citizens slipping away.

"They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail." (Acts 5:18) Apparently all of the apostles are arrested this time, not just Peter and John.

"But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out." (Acts 5:19) I wish more details were given to us about this angel and about how he released the apostles from jail, but the Bible never shines a very bright spotlight on angels. The Lord knows that mankind has a tendency to worship anything and everything that has a connection to the divine, so He purposely steers us away from a "worship of angels", a thing which the Apostle Paul warns us against. (Colossians 2:18) The faithful angels always point man's worship toward God, not toward themselves, and it's important not to get too caught up in the study of these created beings. It's ironic that the Lord uses an angel, another thing the Saduccees don't believe in, to rescue the apostles.

The only thing Luke tells us about this angel is what he says. "'Go, stand in the temple courts,' he said, 'and tell the people all about this new life.'" (Acts 5:20) He reminds the apostles of their commission. They are to keep on doing what Christ instructed them to do. The lost world needs to hear about the Savior. The apostles immediately go out and take up where they left off. "At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people." (Acts 5:21a)

At daybreak their enemies intend to heap more threats and abuse on them. Imagine their surprise when they find the apostles missing! "When the high priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin---the full assembly of the elders of Israel---and sent to the jail for the apostles. But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, 'We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.' On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss, wondering what this might lead to." (Acts 5:21b-24)

I can just picture these men conferring with each other in extreme confusion, saying, "It's bad enough we couldn't keep the body of Jesus contained in a sealed and guarded tomb. Now we can't even keep His apostles contained behind bars! What is going on here? How are we going to handle this? How can we explain such a thing? What can we expect next from these Christians?"

We can't help wondering why these men don't catch on to the fact that God is in the ministry of the apostles. We wonder why they don't become believers and why they don't submit their lives to Jesus and worship Him. To find the answer we have to refer again to John 15, part of which we quoted at the beginning of today's study. When warning His followers of the persecution to come, Jesus said, "They will treat you this way because of My name, for they do not know the One who sent Me." (John 15:21) Jesus and the apostles were hated because their persecutors did not truly know God. Their persecutors did not have a relationship with God, but instead trusted in a religious system (a system by which they profited greatly financially and politically and socially). Jesus told the men who would soon be preaching His gospel, "The religious leaders hate Me because they don't love the Father either. If they knew and loved Him, they would recognize Me for who I am. But they are going to reject Me and, because you are going to preach in My name, they will reject you too. Whoever hates you hates Me. Whoever hates Me hates Almighty God who sent Me."

While the high priest and the Sadducees and the Sanhedrin fret anxiously and pace the floor, even more unwelcome and upsetting news comes to them. "Then someone came and said, 'Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.'" (Acts 5:25) Not only are the apostles missing from the jail, but they are back on the job telling the good news of the gospel! What a wonderful example this is to us to keep on keeping on with the kingdom work of our Lord. The world desperately needs the hope of the gospel. The world needs to hear about the love of Christ. We have been commissioned by the Lord to share His message of hope and love. This is serious work, for lives and souls are at stake. Let us be about the Lord's business, not allowing anything to stop us.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Valentine's Day Card From Jesus

I thought we should take a time-out today from our study of Acts to do a special post about Valentine's Day because it's a day with the potential to make people sad or discontent. It's a day that can make the lonely feel like no one loves or cares about them. I've been there myself. I've spent some of the Valentine Days of my life in bitterness. But we don't have to feel that way. There is Someone who wants to be our Valentine today and every day. There is Someone who loves us more than anyone else ever could and who will do more for us than anyone else ever will.

There is no sweeter valentine than the Lord Jesus Christ. No one has ever loved us more than He does. Who else has died for us? Who else has taken our punishment on themselves? Who else is with us every second of every day and knows all the thoughts in our heads and all the desires of our hearts? Who else made a way for us to live forever in heaven?

Some of my readers may feel lonely at Valentine's Day, and I can assure you it hasn't always been a popular holiday in my house either. It's one of those holidays that makes people feel bad if they aren't in a relationship, or if they are in a relationship but it's an unhappy one, or if their spouse has passed on and they are living alone. 

The Valentine's Day marketing campaigns have the tendency to make us feel like we're nobodies if somebody isn't thinking about us and buying us candy or flowers or nice dinners or diamond rings. But I want you to know that Jesus doesn't think you're a nobody. He thinks you are worth dying for. He thinks you are worth giving everything He has. He thinks about you all the time, not just on a special holiday. You were on His mind before the creation of the world. He loved you even then, long before you ever existed. If you feel today like no one is thinking about you or that no one cares about you, it isn't true. Jesus loves you! There is never a second of any day that He isn't loving you and thinking about you.

Look, sweet friends: here is the love letter of the Lord Jesus Christ to you! If you thought you weren't going to receive a Valentine's Day card today, here it is. Here is how Jesus displayed His love for you. This is how He asks you to be His valentine. You mean so much to Him that He went through all this to ask you, "Will you be Mine?"

"Who has believed our message
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
 He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him,
    nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him.
 He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
   He was despised, and we held Him in low esteem.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on Him
    the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted,

    yet He did not open his mouth;
He was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
    and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
    so He did not open his mouth.
 By oppression and judgment He was taken away.
    Yet who of His generation protested?
For He was cut off from the land of the living;
    for the transgression of my people He was punished.
 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
    and with the rich in His death,
though He had done no violence,
    nor was any deceit in His mouth.
 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush Him and cause Him to suffer,
    and though the Lord makes His life an offering for sin,
He will see His offspring and prolong his days,
    and the will of the Lord will prosper in His hand.
 After He has suffered,       
   He will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by His knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
    and He will bear their iniquities. 
Therefore I will give Him a portion among the great,
    and He will divide the spoils with the strong,
because He poured out his life unto death,
    and was numbered with the transgressors.
For He bore the sin of many,
    and made intercession for the transgressors."
Isaiah 53 NIV